Not so jolly: Va. county bans holiday displays at courthouse

Joseph Stein, 13, of Leesburg displays his opinion before the start of a public hearing in Leesburg.
Joseph Stein, 13, of Leesburg displays his opinion before the start of a public hearing in Leesburg. (Katherine Frey/the Washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Carrying coal and wearing Christmas red, dozens of Loudoun residents stormed into a county meeting Monday night to protest a new policy barring structures, religious or otherwise, from the lawn of the century-old courthouse in Leesburg. The county's new rule, residents say, is a big-time Scrooge -- one that could kill the community's holiday spirit.

The rule, enacted last week by a resident-led committee, bans displays from the courthouse. Residents say it does little but push out family-friendly holiday displays, such as the decorated Christmas tree that has been a fixture in front of the 19th-century brick courthouse for almost 50 years. During Leesburg's annual holiday parade, Santa Claus greets children on the lawn, which has served as Loudoun's public square and a popular meeting place for civic groups, churches and schools.

But Loudoun has a policy banning structures on public property, and, last week, the nine-person residents' committee that handles issues related to grounds and facilities unanimously approved a similar policy for the courthouse.

"This is just Grinch-like," said Ken Reid, a Leesburg council member whose petition drive against the rule was signed by 850 people. "It's a terrible thing to do when we have the worst economy in decades and the gloomiest holiday season since 9/11."

At Monday night's meeting, Loudoun residents -- some in holiday garb and carrying signs that read "Keep Christ in Christmas" -- argued that the new rule would curtail religious speech. "We don't care if the courthouse lawn looks like a cafeteria of different religious symbols. We don't want to lose our holiday," said Barbara Curtis, 61, of Bluemont, who runs a parenting blog, Mommy Life.

Each December, confusion reigns in communities as officials grapple with which holiday decorations can be displayed and in what combinations.

The Supreme Court in the 1980s made two rulings on such issues. In 1984, it allowed a Nativity scene with other secular Christmas decorations in a display sponsored by Pawtucket, R.I., saying the display did not violate the separation of church and state because the scene's religious message was balanced by the secular symbols.

Then, in 1989, it narrowly rejected a creche in Allegheny County, Pa., noting that it stood alone at a county courthouse. At the same time, it permitted a menorah at a public building one block away that was part of a larger grouping of holiday symbols. The justices said that, unlike the creche, the menorah's message was not exclusively religious.

Loudoun's proposed policy does not deal exclusively with religious displays, but its most notable impact is on creches. Members of the county facilities committee started working on a new courthouse-display policy about a year ago, said Ben Lawrence, a Leesburg native and committee chairman. For years, requests have poured in from residents wanting to use the lawn and other public areas for meeting space. Over time, the growing numbers have deluged volunteers and staff. One school group asked to use the courthouse lawn for a 45-band music competition, a request that was ultimately denied, Lawrence said.

"Our decision has nothing to do with Christmas or the holidays," Lawrence said. "The lawn is open to everyone, and we're charged with protecting it. Once it's open for all, it has to be allowed to be used by all."

Still, the proposed change has left many residents feeling as if the county is out to get Christmas. Phil Rusciolelli, a retired Army colonel and a member of the Leesburg Rotary Club, said the town's annual holiday parade, which is set for Dec. 12, draws hundreds of families who look forward to the decorated 20-foot tall tree and the creche display. Without Santa Claus and the Nativity scene, the festivities could be thrown out of whack, Rusciolelli said.

"We're a small town. People know each other, and we have traditions. All of a sudden, there are these new rules, and it's going to be very different," he said. "People might not understand what's going on until we get out here for the Christmas parade."

Neighboring Warren County allows courthouse Nativity displays, but only after a 1994 legal fight by a group founded by religious broadcaster Pat Robertson forced the county's hand. Now, Warren officials are asked to approve a Nativity scene display and an opposing secular display for the courthouse lawn. Both are usually accepted without much opposition, said Warren County Attorney Blair D. Mitchell. "They sort of balance each other out," Mitchell said.

Similar policies exist in other Washington area jurisdictions, such as Fairfax County.

Several Loudoun supervisors said Monday night that they did not intend to outlaw all displays on the courthouse lawn and that they would seek an outside opinion on whether the rule -- as crafted by the resident-led committee -- is binding. "This was more of an issue of what the grounds there can handle and not so much church and state, but it has become a religious issue to a lot of people," said Supervisor Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg). "We need to see what we can do to mitigate those concerns."

The nine-member Loudoun Board of Supervisors is expected to address the policy at its meeting Tuesday.

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